John Grisham’s short stories long on characters

Published 2:20 pm Thursday, November 5, 2009

It’s hard to sell a book of short stories. But not if you’re John Grisham.

The author of “A Time to Kill,” “The Client” and other blockbusters has written his first collection of short fiction, “Ford County,” set in the Mississippi community he has used often in his fiction.

Grisham’s latest — much of it based on his years as a criminal defense and personal litigation lawyer in Southaven, Miss. — includes tales of a dull, dumped husband redeemed by gambling, a ruthless attorney confronted by some old victims, and a bunch of buddies who plan to give blood to a hospitalized friend, but have a few drinks along the way.

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Story collections rarely sell more than a few thousand copies, but demand for “Ford County” has been so high that it was caught in the publishing price wars, with and among those offering pre-orders of the $24 hardcover for $9 or less. On Tuesday, the book’s official release date, Amazon was still selling it for $9.

Wearing a checked brown blazer and light blue shirt — no tie — the 54-year-old author met with The Associated Press on Tuesday and discussed short stories, lawyers, clients and being turned down by The New Yorker.

Q: What made you decide to publish a book of short stories?

A: There are a lot of notes that I take and still do and these ideas, these stories I thought were going to be full-length novels and they just didn’t make it. They’re not long enough, not complicated enough, whatever. So I kept them and I guess about a year ago got serious about finishing the stories.

The great thing about a short story — you can work on it, put it away and forget about it for a year, and go back to it with a different perspective, or different idea. So I’ve done that for many years with these stories.

Q: Many of the stories don’t have a very uplifting view of lawyers.

A: The truth of it is that most of the lawyers I knew way back then, and still know, are honest, hardworking people who don’t make a lot of money, in a small town. Nobody wants to read about those guys. That’s pretty dull. You want to read about a guy who stole money and faked his death or whatever, took off.

There’s a general feeling of unhappiness and lack of fulfillment among many lawyers in small towns. They went to law school and now they’re in a small town and maybe it’s not what they thought it would be. It’s just not as fulfilling. A lot of them are unhappy. And there’s a sense of longing for escape, to get out of it and go do something else, whether it’s a different profession or different locale, just to get out of it.

Q: You seem to have a real affinity with people who are up against it.

A: Those were the people I knew. Those were my clients. As a small-town lawyer, you don’t meet people who are living happy, productive lives with no problems. Everybody who walks in the door has got a problem. Most of the people who walk in the door don’t have a lot of money. They’re injured, they’re going through a divorce, they’re going through a bankruptcy. Something bad’s happened to them and they deal you the cards and you’ve got to help them as their lawyer. But because of that you see a lot of good material. You see some screwed up lives and they tend to be sad, but they also can be very colorful and that’s where the material comes from.

Q: Do you read a lot of short fiction?

A: As a kid I recall reading short stories by Mark Twain and Charles Dickens and even as a young student, the great authors — Faulkner and Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor. Hemingway. I had a teacher in college, freshman comp, who loved Hemingway. All his short stories. … For years, I’ve always enjoyed getting The New Yorker and just going off on the front porch for two hours and reading a great John Cheever short story.

Q: Do you dream of getting a short story in The New Yorker?

A: Well, we submitted some of these and they said they’re too long. So I guess if I can cut some words out, maybe.